FX Gets Back on the Bike

Elgin James, co-creator of Sons of Anarchy spinoff Mayans M.C., has a colorful background to say the least. James was homeless as a teenager in Boston, fronted local hardcore punk bands and spent much of his life in gangs.

After leaving that life for Los Angeles, James was about to start shooting his feature film, Little Birds, when he said he found a dozen FBI agents, guns drawn, outside his home. “My past had come calling,” said James.

He spent time in maximum-security prison, and stuck with screenwriting.

Mayans M.C. is the next chapter in Kurt Sutter’s biker drama that started with Sons. EZ Reyes (played by JD Pardo) is just out of prison, and a prospect in a roughneck motorcycle club along the California-Mexico border. It begins on FX Sept. 4. At the Summer TCA Press Tour earlier this month, Sutter spoke of his first meeting with James. “I was aware that I was no longer the smartest guy at the table,” he said.

Studying in the Sundance Institute Feature Film program, James credits Robert Redford and program director Michelle Satter for teaching him to channel his energies into something positive. “They taught me to express myself through art instead of violence,” said James.

James spoke with Multichannel News about his troubled past, how he ended up on Mayans and what he learned from Sutter. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: When did you guys think there’s another series after Sons of Anarchy?

Elgin James: [FX Networks CEO] John Landgraf and Kurt Sutter talked about it, I think halfway through [Sons]. Kurt wanted to do something else, clean his palate. He did The Bastard Executioner, then he figured it was time for this. Luckily he found me.

MCN: You didn’t work on Sons?

EJ: No, but I grew up in a world similar to that. Growing up in gangs, the majority of my brothers, people that I loved, joined biker clubs, one-percenter clubs. It was a story I had no interest in telling — it was too close. But that I was so reluctant to tell the story means there’s something I need to dive into. I have some issues with violence that I can’t just push away. I needed to look at those directly and address them.

MCN: Is working on Mayans therapeutic for you?

EJ: It definitely has been. The character EZ Reyes just got out of prison. When I started working with Kurt, I was only a few years out of maximum-security prison. You go into the gang world, you have rules and a system set up. You realize when you’re young that the real society, the real world, is set against you just because you’re poor. You create a world in a gang to set your own rules, set your own form of justice and you get to the top of that. You come out of prison and get back into this world of telling stories and art. There’s so much bullshit that’s thrown at you — you have to eat so much shit. You have to keep your eyes on the prize, the big picture. Being able to tell stories about your people — getting that out to the world is worth eating shit.

MCN: How is Mayans different from Sons of Anarchy?

EJ: It’s the same universe but a different world in it. The first thing Kurt said to me was, the mythology of Sons, we can’t ever mess with that. But we need to plant a flag and tell a different story. A different culture, different actors, a different world.

MCN: Tell me more about the EZ character.

EJ: We didn’t want to start off with [Sons protagonist] Jax — he was already royalty. We realized pretty early on in our conversations, this a story of the American dream, the loss of the American dream. America is starting at the bottom. You create a character that you love, that you pour all of your own self into, then you make terrible things happen to them.

MCN: It’s premiere night for Mayans. Are you nervous?

EJ: I’m nervous every day. I’m way more nervous doing this than with anything else I’ve done in my life. I want to make something so personal and just bleed it out. When you do something that could affect so many people, that people feel so passionately about, I’m afraid of letting them down.

Premiere night, I’m sure it will be nerve-wracking. I’ll just try to not look at anybody so no one sees I got tears in my eyes.

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.